St George

“So you’ve been out in the world, righting wrongs and bringing succour to distressed maidens?” asked Artus, less than seriously.
I grinned. “Not many distressed maidens for me. My lady wife is less tolerant of that sort of gral-mission. I get the set battles and military campaigns. Dragons and wurms, that sort of thing. Situations where I can wave a sword and impress the peasants.”
“Dragons?” enquired Artus.
“Dragons,” I said, firmly. “Oh, and I helped Gawan get out of that prison.”
“Ah, yes, the Dolorous Tower or Dolorous Prison, or whatever it was,” said Artus. “But seriously, Parsifal, dragons?”
“Oh, all right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I helped a man called Gewargis kill a crocodile.”
“A what?”
“A scaly beast with huge jaws. We might as well call it a dragon.”
“And why did you need to kill it?”
This I could explain. “Gewargis wanted to save a maiden who was being sacrificed to it. There are some very primitive people around.”
“So did you and this Gewargis save the maiden? What happened to her?”
“Oh, yes, we saved her. I think Gewargis married her. I had to leave before everything sorted itself out.”
Artus took a gulp of wine. “Parsifal, you’re making as much sense as you ever did, I fear, but it’s very entertaining…”

I have been re-reading Samantha Riches’s St George: A Saint for All. It’s a fascinating book, tracing the evolution of the cult of the dragon killing saint we think we know and the various cultural appropriations. St George is reinvented, with and without his dragon, by many nations and religions and this book looks at many versions of the iconic figure. From a figure of nature and healing to the dragon slaying Christian, to the Muslin resurrection stories, George is more complex than his usual guise of a chivalrous English gentleman. Riches’s book explores historical and popular culture as well as religion.

George and the tethered dragon
Detail from one of the St George and the Dragon wall paintings, by Vittore Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

Riches’s earlier book St George: Hero, Martyr and Myth is equally engaging. The comparative tables of George’s tortures just underline the evasive nature of the story of the saint: I didn’t realise how George’s torments were more in line with those described for female martyrs than male and how the guild processions highlighted the dragon killing rather than the martyrdom. And that there is a notable number of depictions where dragon is feminised, as a symbol of bestiality and sexuality, while George is constructed as a virgin martyr and chaste hero. (Although the images of George killing a dragon with little dragonets clustered round their wounded parent does lead one to sympathise with the animal protecting its family, rather than the mailed man slaughtering them. We must remember he is doing this to protect the princess or virgin.) But for George to reclaim his place in the pantheon of saints, he has to be redeemed from later appropriations – Riches argues for this, but a lot of work needs to be done outside academia for this to happen.

To illustrate the popularity of George and his dragon, one incident from many years ago sticks in my mind. I was walking near Friday Street on the north slopes of Leith Hill and as I got to the road a car drew up and the driver asked if I knew if there was a pub nearby named after a saint and dragon. “George and dragon?” I asked, trying to think of local hostelries. “No, Stephen and dragon,” came the reply. “Ah,” I said, realization dawning. “You mean the Stephen Langton. Carry on this road.” “Yes!” said the driver and drove off toward the pub. That the Archbishop whose election was a major factor in producing the Magna Carta could be conflated with St George did at least amuse me, even if I could have done with a lift to the pub…

“My father knew a man he called Gewargis – so for our purposes George – who wrestled with a crocodile and said it was a dragon.” I liked the expression on Marangliez’s face. He knows who my father is. “It’s a similar story. Woman about to be sacrificed to crocodile by local population, man saves her and she marries him. I’m not sure what happened to the local population, but I expect they were just grateful to have the crocodile killed.”
“And your father’s part in this?”
I shrugged. “You know how it is with my father. He’s a bit vague about some things. I’m not sure it was one of his outings on official business.”

For my stories, he’s come a long way from his appearance in the original writing exercises with two friends. He was depicted as the pompous figure “George Saint” who gets eaten by a dragon, having not put enough opium in the rabbit he threw to the dragon before attacking. There’s a story there, but it’s not for me. In Goodly Company, he’s now an old friend of Parzival who kills a crocodile and goes by the Aramaic form of his name. Quite what Parzival was doing, involving himself in George’s story, I am not sure, but Parzival has quite a familiarity with unpredictable wildlife.

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